Tuesday, October 9, 2007

How could a foundry be a terrorist target?

In a Chemical Plant Security News blog earlier this week I detailed how a foundry like the one in Tacoma, WA, that was involved in a large propane fire last week, could be protected against a successful terrorist attack against its propane tanks. While the costs for that security would not be too high (certainly less than the costs of rebuilding the plant that the owners are going to see in the coming months) a typical foundry owner might ask themselves: “Why would our facility be a terrorist target?”


In fact, lots of chemical facilities are asking themselves the same question as they look at preparing Security Vulnerability Assessments and Site Security plans required under the new CFATS regulations. The easy answer is because DHS designated you a chemical facility at high risk of being a terrorist target. Unfortunately, DHS has taken the probably proper stance that they will not enumerate the reasons that a particular plant is designated a High Risk facility. The details of that process, if disclosed, would provide too much information to possible terrorists.


So, what then makes a good terrorist target? While there are lots of technical or political descriptions the easiest one to understand is that a good terrorist target is one that, if successfully attacked, provides the terrorist with the loudest, most visible, most painful stage from which to proclaim the Message. Sometimes the message is overtly political; do this or that thing or we will continue to attack. Other times it may be a simple statement of superiority; you are the enemy and we can strike you where ever and when ever we want. Or it can be simple revenge for some slight or attack, real or imagined. But, what ever the message, the purpose of the attack is to draw attention to the message.


The larger and splashier the attack the less it has to be linked to the message. Thus the Twin Towers were a target, not necessarily due to their connection to any specific target of Al Qaeda, but because they were so large, so easily seen, and full of so many people that a successful attack on them made for a very big stage, a stage of world wide scope. A chemical facility that would provide a spectacle of comparable size would be a comparable target. Thus an LPG tank near a major city, or a Bhopal like disaster in an American city would be great target. Targets of this size need no proclamation of responsibility; the medium is the message.


Slightly smaller targets can be made larger by some sort of connection to the cause, a political or cultural linkage. This was how a relatively small firearm attack on a building in Munich became such a good terrorist target. Killing Israeli athletes at the Olympics made the small scale attack a large terrorist incident. Thus an attack on a chemical facility that produces material used by the US Military in Iraq or Afghanistan or was owned or affiliated with an Israeli company would be a good target for an Al Qaeda associated terrorist. Targets like this require a little political statement to ensure that everyone understands the message; a short claim of responsibility and explanation of the connection usually suffices.


Smaller targets can be made splashy enough with a loud, frightening message. Most chemical facilities would fall under this type target. The attack has to be splashy enough to catch regional media attention, like the fireballs and explosions in the foundry fire in Tacoma. The message must then be communicated while the media attention is focused. The message must be loud and arrogant; “We can hit you. We can hurt you. At any time or place of our choosing.” It is better if the effects of the attack can be felt a distance away from the physical damage; toxic fumes down wind, interruptions to utilities, or if the weak (children, the infirm or the old) can be put at special risk; anything to make the pain of the attack more obvious.


Finally, the very small targets can be successfully used by terrorists ifthey can be attacked at will and at random. This is the suicide bomber with the explosive vest walking into a department store, a gasoline station or the local chemical warehouse;  if done frequently enough and in a random manner, the entire society becomes the platform for the message. This requires the largest propaganda effort to accompany the attacks. The terrorist group must strive to make everyone fearful that they could become the victim of the next attack.


Looked at in this way it is easy to see that any chemical facility could be the target of a terrorist attack. The trick to avoid becoming a target is to make the chance of a successful attack as unlikely as possible, to make the terrorist look elsewhere for a more profitable target.

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